hairy creatures of God

Nice to be home, even after a great session at the Society of Biblical Literature on my book, The Sacred Economy (more on that soon). Above all, it is wonderful to greet our pet spider, who dwells in a corner by the dining table.



It is a treat to introduce her to guests, who are usually not aware that they are sitting centimeters away from this beautiful arachnid. But she was looking a little thin after a couple of weeks of being on her own, so I caught a moth and dropped it into her web.



Usually she runs and hides when my hand looms above the web, but when the coast is clear, she comes out to enjoy some dinner with us:

IMG_3225 (2)a

The other night, I happened to be on a bicycle at a northerly latitude. Not only had the last light finally faded by 11.30 pm, but the glimmer of dawn began not long after 2.00 am. (Don’t ask why we were out on a bike at those hours). Soon after 2.00 am the birds began chattering, flapping about, doing their thing. I felt really sorry for them, tied as they are to the patterns of night and day. For weeks on end, they have really short nights, barely three hours’ sleep. And their days are incredibly long. With all that sleep deprivation, I wondered: Do they get cranky? Do they make tired mistakes when flying? What about the long term effects – weight gain, heart problems, high blood pressure? Do any birds actually go to bed early and sleep in?

Most law collections are pretty boring reads. Hammurabi is a snore, with grandiose claims to his achievements in bringing justice, peace and well-being to all. Not so the Middle Assyrian Laws. Here we do come up against sheer difference, for the mind can barely get around the reasons for pressing these laws into clay for all eternity to follow.

For instance:

If a woman should crush a man’s testicle during a quarrel, they should cut off one of her fingers. And if the physician should bandage it, but the second testicle then becomes infected along with it …, or if she should crush the second testicle during the quarrel – they shall gouge out both her .. [text curiously broken here]

One can only imagine what Assyrian domestic quarrels were like.

Then there is:

If a man lays a hand upon a woman, attacking her like a rutting bull, and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall cut off one of his fingers. If he should kiss her, they shall draw his lower lip across the blade of an axe and cut it off.

Perhaps the most intriguing are these two:

If a man furtively spreads rumours about his comrade, saying, ‘Everyone sodomises him,’ or in a quarrel in public says to him, ‘Everyone sodomises you,’ and further, ‘I can prove the charges against you,’ but is unable to prove the charges and does not prove the charges, they shall strike that man 50 blows with rods; he shall perform the king’s service for one full month; they shall cut off his hair; he shall pay 3,600 shekels of lead.

If a man sodomises his comrade and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall sodomise him and turn him into a eunuch.

That should stamp out sodomy.

One of my arguments in The Sacred Economy, at least in the chapter called ‘On Fluid Bodies: Clans, Households, and Patrons,’ is that the ancient Near Eastern clan included both human beings and domestic animals in a continuum. I base this on the ‘bestiality’ laws, which assume such continuity, since they appear within the framework of what are called ‘incest’ laws. ‘Incest’ here includes both blood and non-blood human relations, as well as your expected sheep, goat, cow, pig, and dog.

Some more evidence has come to light, from the method of recording in the late Uruk period (late fourth millennium). There, clay tablets  list rural and estate labourers, distinguishing between male and female, age groups (children are ‘womb-sucklers’), and their groupings. The curious thing is that exactly the same method is used for recording animals, down to the common term for ‘herd’.

Late Uruka

So where were the boundaries? A stronger one was between ruling class human beings and those who tilled the soil and herded the sheep and goats. But the most noticeable boundary was between wild animals and domesticated animals-humans. The clan certainly did not include those wild types, unpredictable as they were and outside the bounds of what counted as part of the tribe.

For some reason I cannot quite fathom, scholars continue to squirm over bestiality. I am preparing to write a piece on bestiality and other paraphilias for a collection with Routledge called Sex in Antiquity. In reading the scant literature on this topic, I came across a piece by JoAnn Scurlock (in Encyclopaedia of the Bible and Its Reception), who appears to be slightly unsettled by the relaxed approach of some of our civilisational forebears to matters sexual and bestial.  She wants to argue that they found it all rather distasteful, skipping by material that suggests otherwise. But the highlight is perhaps this moment in her argument. She notes that in the list of omens in the Cuneiform Texts in the Kuyunjik Collection at the British Museum, the following omen appears:

In the one preserved omen where the human takes the initiative, a man inseminates a horse and kisses it (for Mesopotamians a post-coital act), and it means he will have long days.

Not quite sure whether is the “insemination” or the kiss that is problematic here (how do you pash a horse?). Nonetheless, Ms Scurlock proceeds with this stunner:

This would appear to be an endorsement; however, behavioral omens inhabit an amoral universe where the only calculation is of whether anything about the behavior could be interpreted as being of benefit or harm to the solicitor of the omen. It does not follow that good-omened behavior is necessarily desirable or even legal.

What? How is a collection of omens amoral, especially when their purpose is to ensure benefit or harm? And how can good-omened behaviour not be desirable? The presence of bestiality does seem to unsettle the normal processes of logic.

Anyway, I plan to include the smooching horse in my article, along with further reflections on the hippophilic Hittites and the fascinating ritual for a man who has a twinge of guilt for a dalliance with a goat.

kiss 02

Where there are men, there must be chickens.

Peasant saying from Ningxia, China, 1936.

Two somewhat different quotes, the first of which offered a new theory of skin colour – over against the standard theory, which held until about the eighteenth century, that skin colour was due to exposure to the sun. This one has more to do with cooking time in the womb:

A man of discernment said: The people of Iraq have sound minds, commendable passions, balanced natures, and high proficiency in every art, together with well-proportioned limbs, well-compounded humours, and a pale brown colour, which is the most apt and proper colour. They are the ones who are done to a turn in the womb. They do not come out with something between blonde, buff, blanched, and leprous colouring, such as the infants dropped from the wombs of the women of the Slavs and others of similar light complexion; nor are they overdone in the womb until they are burned, so that the child comes out something between black, murky, malodorous, stinking and crinkly-haired, with uneven limbs, deficient minds, and depraved passions, such as the Zanj, the Ethiopians, and other blacks who resemble them. The Iraqis are neither half-baked dough nor burned crust but between the two.

Ibn al-Fakih al Hamadhani, from Kitab al Buldan (Book of Countries, 903)

And a great example of how the myth of classicism took off in places like Germany in the nineteenth century, turning the Greeks into good Europeans, so much so that the ancient Greeks – with their slave-holding, veils for women, and a penetrating culture (for adult men) – would hardly have recognised themselves:

We regarded Greece as our second homeland; for it was the seat of all nobility of thought and feeling, the home of harmonious humanity. Yes, we even thought that ancient Greece belonged to Germany because, of all the modern peoples, the Germans had developed the deepest understanding of the Hellenic spirit, of Hellenic art, and of the harmonious Hellenic way of life. We thought this in the exuberance of a national pride, in virtue of which we proclaimed the German people the leading culture of the modern world and the Germans the modern Hellenes. We announced that Hellenic art and nature had been reborn more completely in German poetry and music than in the poetry and music of any other people of the contemporary world … Our enthusiasm for Greece was inseparable from our enthusiasm for our fatherland … We looked back to classical antiquity as to a lost paradise.

Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, on student life in a German Gymnasium. From his Kulturgeschichtliche Charakterköpfe (1891).

One of things I love about summer is swimming in the ocean and then letting the salt water dry on my skin. In fact, with a daily swim I don’t bother with any other form of washing – at times for days, if not weeks on end. I’m like a salt shaker and what’s left of my hair gets bleached. But the best part is sniffing my armpits. Why? They smell like the deep blue sea.

I have just finished a discussion of the institutional form of kinship-household for my study of the sacred economy, although it has been a bit of a trial. Too often did I come across assertions that seem to echo the religious and political right: the ‘family’ or household was the basis of ancient society. All of which led me to ask how how big ancient clans really were. For obvious reasons, most seem to assume that it was restricted to human beings, largely made up of blood relations.

But they miss two obvious elements: the dead and animals. How so?

Given the ubiquity of veneration for the ancestors, the dead were obviously part of the clan. While Nancy Jay’s point is well taken – “Ultimately the dead are only important as they integrate and differentiate relations among their living descendants” – I would like to stress that the dead are not merely tools of the living, but are very much part of the clan, one that is constructed beyond the boundaries of the living. Of course, the dead do not engage materially in agricultural production, but even here they are recipients of reallocated produce, typically left at their graves. Their prime function was ideological, an extra-economic dimension that was very much part of the kinship-household.

However, I suggest the kinship group extended even further. An insight may be gained from an unexpected quarter, namely, the incest laws in the Hebrew Bible. The prohibitions against incest read as follows:

Whoever has sex with [šōkeb] a beast shall be put to death (Ex 22:18 [19 in ET]).

And you shall not ejaculate [tittēn šĕkobtekā] into any beast and defile yourself with it, neither shall any woman bend over before [ta‘ămōd lipnê] a beast to copulate [rv’] with it: it is a perversion (Lev 18:23).

If a man ejaculates [yittēn šĕkobtô] into a beast, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the beast. If a woman approaches any beast to copulate [rv‘] with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them (Lev 20:15-16).

“Cursed be he who has sex [šōkeb] with any beast.” And all the people shall say, “Amen” (Deut 27:21).

Apart from the consistent pattern of translations attempting to soften the earthy directness of the Hebrew, it is worth noting, first, that these texts ban sex with any animal and, second, that the command explicitly (and graphically in the case of Lev 18:23) addresses women as well as men on two occasions. Yet, all attempts to interpret these texts isolate them from their literary contexts. Three of the four occurrences of the ban on bestiality occur in the context of the incest taboo. In Lev 18:23, bestiality comes at the conclusion of a long passage on the incest taboo (Lev 18:6-18), where we find bans on: sex with one’s (assuming a man’s) mother, father’s wife (who is obviously different from one’s mother), sister or even stepsisters (daughters of one’s mother or father), granddaughters, half-sisters, paternal and maternal aunts, a paternal uncle’s wife, daughter-in-law, brother’s wife, a woman, her daughter, and her granddaughter, and sisters. At the close of this collection of incest taboos we also find laws against sex with a woman during her period, sex with a man’s neighbor’s wife, devoting one’s children in the fire to Molech, a ban on male-on-male sex, and finally on bestiality. Rather similar lists of incest taboos, albeit with a few less examples, appear in Lev 20:10-21 (in which vv. 15-16 are found) and in Deut 27:20-3 (the context for v. 21). In other words, the ban on bestiality is one instance of a much more flexible and extended incest taboo, a taboo that includes not merely relations by blood, but also wider clan relations, menstrual sex, male-on-male sex, and bestiality.

The following conclusions may be drawn from these biblical texts. First, they operate with a massively different sexual economy in which there is no sliding scale of sexually forbidden acts: bestiality is on the same level as having sex with one’s aunt by marriage or a menstruating woman. That is, sex with animals, the same sex, and extended relatives are all on par. Second, the biblical laws assume that animals are on the same level, sexually, as a man’s extended clan and his fellow men. The clan does not stop with human beings. Hence the laws on bestiality are located within a much expanded range of incest taboos. In this respect, these laws have a deep continuity with the Hittite laws on bestiality, which I have studied elsewhere. Despite apparent differences – the Hittites permitted sex with horses, the dead, and being penetrated by an ox, for instance – they indicate a common and shared sexual economy, one that suggests a common understanding of kinship structures that include human beings, the dead, and animals.

The economic implications should be obvious: patterns of allocation and reallocation, largely concerning foodstuffs, involve these clan members as well. The animal’s own contribution was in terms of milk, wool, or hair, and on death its body parts. They were also recipients, of water, food, and care, and the household space – in both village-communes and towns – is inconceivable without the omnipresent domesticates. Even more, they were understood as agents in their own right, acting in ways that manifested the capriciousness of the gods, to be watched and studied closely, to be divined through myriad means. In other words, through the creative expansion of one’s sexual and kinship horizons, animals were included within the workings of the sacred economy.

While taking a long hike through a local forest this afternoon, in the teeth of a bitter wind and some driving snow, we came across a long run of these:

wolf print 01

They ran for a few hundred metres along a track deep in the forest, spaced out at an even distance, here in the Oberlausitz region of Saxony, which is close by the Czech and Polish borders.


‘Look at those tracks’, I said. ‘Do you think they’re from a wolf?’

‘Nah, that’s a big dog’, Christina said. ‘Shit, it’s big though’.

‘Are you sure?’ I said.

‘You can see that it’s on a lead’, she said.

I wondered about the absence of human footprints along a muddy track and the  long lope between prints. She wondered about the size of the middle pad and the long claw marks at the front of the print, not to mention the size of an animal that would leave such deep prints.

Back at our lodgings by dusk and slowly warmed up again, we decided to check on wolves in this area.

The results: this is the favoured area for wolves returning to Germany, after an absence of 150 years!

Why? It is a relatively sparsely populated region, with 20,000 hectares of forests, open country, moors and heathland. And there’s plenty of game, since too many deer roam the forests. In fact, a wolf pack lives right here, initially a handful but now with cubs born every year. It all began about ten years ago, when a pair decided to cross the border from the mountains in Poland and set up a new home hereabouts. They mated and had two female cubs. Now known as One Eye and Sunny, they found mates, reproduced, and so the pack has expanded year by year. The young males born have set out to find new territory, roaming throughout the eastern parts of Germany and then as far as Jutland and the Netherlands. And now they are meeting up with some of their Mediterranean cousins from Italy and France. Apparently, a wolf can travel up to 200 km of an evening.

Given the German propensity to have everything managed, neatly and carefully, there is a ‘Wolf Office‘ right here, with all the information you might or might not want.

So yes, they are wolf tracks. A match for the wild boar spoor we saw yesterday.


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